Is Jonathan Swift Taking a Shot at Colonialism?
“I have already observed that they are subject to no diseases, and therefore can have no need of physicians. However, they have excellent medicines, composed of herbs, to cure accidental bruises and cuts in the pastern or frog of the foot, by sharp stones, as well as other maims and hurts in the several parts of the body” (349). This seems to be taking a shot at colonialism because it is well documented that the colonists brought diseases to the west. However, these Houyhnhnms have never been in contact with any type of disease. When Gulliver talks about the use of herbs it could be interpreted that the Houyhnhnms could also be a representation of the Native Americans. Before the arrival of the British or any European nation, the Native Americans were disease-free. There were no such things as smallpox or measles, but there were remedies for aches and pain in the form of ancient herbs. In my opinion, Swift intends to make the Houyhnhnms as innocent beings; just like the Native Americans.
But is this the case for Yahoos? In some way, the Yahoos could be a representation of what has become of those who have “fallen”. They are also animals, and very similar to those of a human. The reason why I say Yahoos are a representation of Native Americans that have become affected by the Europeans is because they are the only animals to have ever gotten sick. Not only that, but also their form of medication is just as bad as poop. Yes, poop!
“Their next business is from herbs, minerals, gums, oils, shells, salts, juices, sea-weed, excrements, barks of trees, serpents, toads, frogs, spiders, dead men’s flesh and bones, birds, beasts, and fishes, to form a composition, for smell and taste, the most abominable, nauseous, and detestable, they can possibly contrive, which the stomach immediately rejects with loathing, and this they call a vomit; or else, from the same store-house, with some other poisonous additions, they command us to take in at the orifice above or below (just as the physician then happens to be disposed) a medicine equally annoying and disgustful to the bowels; which, relaxing the belly, drives down all before it; and this they call a purge, or a clyster” (323).
Just like the Houyhnhnms, they have their own types of remedies but they also use the likes of spiders, dead human flesh and bones, poop, piss, etc. These all seem to be things that are less than likely to be actual medication or remedies. But they mix their medication with their own excrements and that sounds dangerous because it could potentially cause diseases to spread around. Other than that, the intention here is to prove how far these animals have fallen because of these “evils” that have consumed them. In such a manner, that I believe Swift’s intention here is to represent two sides of the Natives: the innocence and the destruction that has been set upon them.
Houyhnhnms: How the Enlightenment Should Be Like
Swift writes about the Houyhnhnms as if they are the ideas brought up during the Enlightenment. This is based on Gulliver’s observations of the Houyhnhnms in chapter 9, “They calculate the year by the revolution of the sun and moon, but use no subdivisions into weeks. They are well enough acquainted with the motions of those two luminaries, and understand the nature of eclipses; and this is the utmost progress of their astronomy” (349-350). Thus, showing the advancement of intellectual movement like the Enlightenment. By knowing the revolution of the sun and moon, they are able to identify how long a year is. Just like us today, we would also rely on this knowledge to calculate the days of the year. However, the difference between humans and Houyhnhnms is that humans actually divide the year into months, days, and weeks. Other than that, the Houyhnhnms do have knowledge of astronomy which was a very new concept within the Enlightenment era. The age of the Enlightenment showed the development of science, and so on it spread throughout Europe. In the lecture notes, it states the book satirizes ideas of the Enlightenment. And on top of that, during lecture, it has been noted that Swift was a supporter of the movement as well. I believe this is one of the many implications where Gulliver suggests that not only are Houyhnhnms the perfect example of followers of the Enlightenment, but also an example for mankind to follow. But Swift? Maybe their ideas are great but not everything is so perfect.
Poetry in a Reasonable Society? Nonsense!
Gulliver also makes a good point in chapter 9 when he states “In poetry, they must be allowed to excel all other mortals; wherein the justness of their similes, and the minuteness as well as exactness of their descriptions, are indeed inimitable. Their verses abound very much in both of these, and usually contain either some exalted notions of friendship and benevolence or the praises of those who were victors in races and other bodily exercise” (350). Here, he states that the Houyhnhnms are free to do create poetry. They are very skilled at creating poetry that it is impossible to imitate. And the message behind their poems would be either of positive things such as friendship, love, kindness, and winners. This to me, seems to be a response to Thomas Sprat’s perspective of the use of storytelling, poetry, and metaphors: ““…nothing may be sooner obtained than this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue…” (Sprat, p. 2176). The Enlightenment was more than just a science revolution, it was the age of reason. And because of that, poetry was put on the shelf during the movement.
I believe what Swift is trying to convey here is that the Houyhnhnms are capable to do anything they want without being criticized for not being “reasonable”. In addition to that, I think Swift is saying that poetry can be great on its own category. The society that the Houyhnhnms have created for themselves are “perfect”. In a sense, where they can do absolutely anything without the interference of evil or corruption. And as innocent as they are, in a society where Sprat wants only reason and evidence, the Houyhnhnms wouldn’t know what they have done wrong because they believe it is right to create poetry. They are able to make poetry and work on science at the same time; unlike the actual Enlightenment. Therefore, I believe Gulliver is suggesting that it would be better for mankind to allow the use of storytelling in the age of science/reason. But Swift is saying that this is too sweet, and to have a utopia this good-there must be some bad, bad things going on behind the scenes.
Think of it like make-up, maybe the Houyhnhnms are born with it, maybe it’s Mayebline. All jokes aside Swift states, “The question to be debated was, ‘whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the face of the earth?’… they were the most restive and indocible, mischievous and malicious; they would privately suck the teats of the Houyhnhnms’ cows, kill and devour their cats, trample down their oats and grass, if they were not continually watched, and commit a thousand other extravagancies” (346).
This is a not so subtle warning from Swift. In order to create a perfect utopia, they must remove the Yahoos from existence. Not only that, but they also hint at Eugenics by having a standard for their own species. I see parallels to not only Hitler’s regime, but also America’s attempt at Eugenics in the early 20th century. And on top of that, we also have parallels to the witch-trials during the early western world with the description of sucking the teets of cows, killing cats, etc. It sounds eerily similar to things that have yet to come, but it just shows how the literature of power has moved one single idea throughout centuries.
– Christopher Luong